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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative


Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Bull story from the Washington Post Writers Group

Published 08/17/10

Breeding does not equal natural selection

Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a "senior fellow" of the Independent Institute, editor of Lessons from the Poor and a writer for The Washington Post Writers Group, recently wrote a strong defense of bullfighting, fearing that the fact that the region of Catalonia, in Spain, will proscribe bullfights after 2012 presages further bans.

He makes the familiar argument that there is a lot of animal cruelty, apparently thinking that if two wrongs don't make a right, a lot of wrongs do.

Much of his argument is to the effect that the ban is a calculated political act by Catalonian nationalists, "a weapon against Spain." It is OK, he adds, not to attend a corrida, but a complete ban is "a totalitarian act." Because it is wrong to a growing number of people does not make it wrong, I agree, but it does not make it right. The concern of those of us opposed to the practice — cruelty — is balanced in Llosa's mind by the greater value of "tradition." Let me briefly state my position and then move on to what he said that was a tad different from the usual defense of bullfighting, but which particularly irritates me, as a naturalist and a conservationist.

Put simply I believe that civilization consists of moving ever closer to ideals of compassion and logic. Compassion, which is tied up with the idea of "fairness," admittedly is a slippery concept. We cannot, for example, always simultaneously compassionately defend the interests of the employer and the employee, or more bluntly, the slave-master and the slave. The man who exercises his right to dump in the stream that runs through his own, paid-for property does so at the expense of his downstream neighbor.

Abuse is predicated on differences. The reason that one individual acts or believes himself or herself superior to the other has to do with circumstances of birth, the oppressed having had the misfortune to be the wrong color, the wrong sex, the wrong age, the wrong religion or the wrong nationality, or to have the wrong sexual orientation, the wrong degree of intelligence or the wrong appearance, or to be part of the wrong family, the wrong tribe — or the wrong species. Discrimination based on all these factors, over which the oppressed has no control, continues apace, it is true, but the general movement is toward the affirmation of basic rights to those different categories — to not stone the gay person, underpay the woman, enslave the black person, take advantage of the poor, mock and torment those with mental disabilities or whatever, except for the last category. Species-based bias is still widely acceptable, a different species still being too different to accommodate within an otherwise growing sphere of compassion, although there are inroads — just like inroads against any form of injustice among humans, criticized by defenders of the status quo. Defenders such as Llosa.

That won't change. But since the defenders of abuse usually have some dim sense that hurting others because it's fun, or a tradition, or whatever, does not necessarily justify that abuse, they seek some common ground with others who don't share their complacency for the pain they accept. Hunters never talk of the pleasure of killing — it's always about how they contribute to conservation, or how they learn about the joys of the outdoors or, yes, that they are carrying on a great tradition.

And what this senior fellow, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, came up with is the fear that if bullfighting is banned, "The bullfighting bull would probably be extinct — in the manner of its ancestor, the aurochs, in the 17th century — were it not for the selective breeding and care with which the animals are raised on Spanish and Latin American ranches."

Then, he goes on to ask, "Is animal protection the right name for a campaign that would kill this entire breed?"

The resounding answer is YES! And I speak as one who has long fought to protect species from endangerment or extinction. The thing that is confusing to Llosa and folks like him is a basic lack of knowledge about the differences between species and breeds (called "cultivars" in plants). Species are current products of some 3 billion years of evolution through natural processes of selection. By definition, natural selection is predicated on what heritable traits have allowed individuals to survive long enough to reproduce. Those are the traits that, in biologists' terminology, are "selected for."

Breeds and cultivars, on the other hand, are of recent origin, having been around for anywhere from a few years to perhaps 10,000 to 14,000 years at most, when humans first started taking wild animals and plants and, usurping natural selection, began breeding them for specific traits. Those individual animals and plants that had heritable characteristics that humans valued were bred to develop those characteristics while others were removed from the gene pool as unsuitable — unsuitable, that is, to what the humans wanted. If, in the 19th century, German badger hunters needed a dog with short legs and a long body to hunt badgers, why should they worry that cross-breeding would give the dog back problems?

Grotesqueries occurred. Consider the Red Jungle Fowl. That is a wild species of pheasant native to Southeast Asian jungles that is the progenitor of all breeds of domestic chicken. Domestication serves human interests, not those of the animal that is domesticated. The long-tailed fowl of Japan have tail feathers that never moult, growing to 8 feet or more in length. To preserve these plumes, the bird must sit all day on a 3-inch perch, allowed to walk for less than an hour a day with someone holding the precious feathers out of the dirt, and when moved, is placed in a box that is 6 inches square, but long enough to accommodate the plumes. And then there are those chicken breeds selected for their meat, not their appearance, who grow so heavy that their bones literally cannot support their weight, again to the benefit of human breeders, not the birds themselves.

Plants lack the complex nervous systems of animals, thus don't suffer as animals do. The Spanish bulls that, by Llosa's own admission, have only been bred for a few hundred years are not a separate species; they are descendents of the same species, the aurochs, which are the progenitor of most cattle breeds found on American or European farms. That the aurochs, which were a bigger, stronger herbivore than any of their domesticated descendents, went extinct is an ecological misfortune, but the loss of a breed of bulls bred to die to amuse bullfight aficionados would be of no ecological significance nor decrease biodiversity. The last thing a matador wants to face in the ring would be a real aurochs, or something like an attack-trained German shepherd or Doberman pinscher. No, they want a breed of cattle that has to be goaded to "fight" in a cruel and noisy spectacle that most of the world, presumably unlike Llosa, were not conditioned from childhood to find acceptable.

Of the 13 wild species of cattle known, two are extinct, and only two are increasing — the American Bison and the European Bison, both coming back from the brink of extinction. The others are all in decline, with the Tamaraw, which I'll wager Mr. Llosa has never heard of, critically endangered. Domestication has not saved them, and each is a full species, not some human-driven effect of domestication.

Llosa states that without government subsidies, bullfighting might disappear. "Culture that lives on diktats," he opines, "ceases to be culture."

I don't agree. The nation's wealth is a resource not to be hoarded by a tiny minority but shared for a more common good, including support for arts and the cultural traditions worth supporting. But whatever ends any cruelty toward bulls, humans or any species is to the good. That said, common decency, compassion and benevolence should be enough to end bullfighting. And let's not mistake our ability to play God and create breeds of animals to our liking with an inherent and unchallenged right to do so. Eugenics – the intentional pairing of people with "desired" traits once popular among some groups of people, including the Nazis – is now almost universally condemned in recognition of the risks of creating superbeings, or separate breeds of humans for separate purposes. It is not a good idea for people, or for animals. Manufacturing a killable breed of cattle to suffer for the pleasure of dwindling numbers of bullfighting fans is no justification for the sadistic brutality of the bullring.

And though bullfighting is not considered entertainment in the United States, far too many animals continue to be used in entertainment spectacles. Do your part and reject such blatant misuse of animals. Only when people recognize animal exploitation for what it truly is will it end. If there is no audience, the abuse will cease to exist!

Blogging off,

Barry

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